Once upon a time there was a Memphis law firm known as Kustoff and Strickland.
The partners were David Kustoff, a politically active Republican, and Jim Strickland, a politically active Democrat. The amiable partnership seemed to embody a spirit of comity that was much needed in Memphis.
The recent actions of both lawyers-turned-politicians, however, are disappointing.
Kustoff, the victor in August’s Eighth District congressional Republican primary, showed his true colors in a television ad campaign bragging about sending crooked politicians to prison. The reference was to former Sen. John Ford, the big catch in the federal investigation known as Tennessee Waltz 10 years ago. The not-so-subtle inference was that crooked pols are Democrats.
Kustoff served briefly as United States attorney for the Western District of Tennessee during Tennessee Waltz, which had begun before his appointment. He was a courtroom spectator but not a participant in the Ford trial and joined with the lead prosecutors in making some general comments afterward. Now likely to be elected to Congress in November, Kustoff, by morphing into a fiery hatchet man, has made it harder for an office that has prosecuted four Ford brothers in 35 years (whiffing twice) to maintain a semblance of political impartiality in the eyes of the public.
Strickland, meanwhile, won a seat on the Memphis City Council, where he served a term before running for mayor and defeating incumbent A C Wharton. Six months into his first term, he has turned into a control guy with a media and marketing team the likes of which has never been seen at City Hall.
The Selling of Mayor Strickland includes restrictions on reporters’ access to City Hall, a churlish reminder about the impropriety of news media “loitering,” and a warning to city employees that speaking to the media without authorization is now a firing offense.
This will be seen by some as special pleading, but reporters are not the same as members of the general public. A book could be written about The Art of Loitering. Seeing politicians in unguarded moments is part of a job that has fallen out of favor as social media replaces legacy media.
It wasn’t my beat, but I covered three city mayors and two county mayors on and off for 25 years and got to know Dick Hackett, Willie Herenton, Wharton, Bill Morris, and Jim Rout fairly well. I also spent time jawing with their division directors and aides who might know something interesting or complicated about what was going down or coming up and enlighten me about it.
I believe their openness and easy access was, on balance, tolerable for them, good for me and my employers, and good for the public. Reporters could walk into their offices unannounced and unescorted, say hello to the secretary, and sit down with the mayor if he wasn’t too busy. There was trust both ways – not drinking buddies as an older generation of reporters had been with Wyeth Chandler – but enough trust to speak freely.
This could cause problems. Hackett became mayor when he was 32 years old. There was a learning curve. He once said something I thought was news, so I told the beat reporter, who laughed and said he would “kid him about it.” No, I thought, this needs to be in the paper. It wasn’t.
Herenton moved the office from the second floor to the less accessible seventh floor. He was famously confrontational in news conferences, but in private he never spoke off the record and liked to share personal stories and articles he had saved from back in the day. The context provided by key aides such as Rick Masson and Robert Lipscomb as well as City Council members and staff was crucial to understanding what was going on between 1992 and 2009.
Wharton was polite and agreeable to a fault, and could see the merits of opposing points of view. I believe his trouble making up his mind, both real and perceived, cost him the 2015 election.
On the county side, Bill Morris, mayor from 1978 to 1994, was a talker whose flights of fancy could leave reporters and his own staff baffled. As a cub reporter in 1982, I heard him speak about the opening of Mud Island and asked Chandler for help. Clearly clueless, he said, “Oh, that’s just Morris,” and shook his head. The city and county mayors, I learned, are joined at the hip, and personalities matter a lot.
The point of this stroll down Memory Lane is that face-to-face communication between reporters and mayors and public employees is essential. Press releases, tweets, and e-mail replies are marketing and cannot replace it. Jim Strickland ran as a cost-cutter. He has a biggest-ever staff of four “communicators.” Sadly, they don’t communicate very well.